Ilham Rawoot
Ilham Rawoot

The night it all began

The National Arts Festival has kicked off. More like, started a brisk walk. I managed to see through my first day in the town I almost studied in. I am excited, and yet a little weirded out at being in the place that I was this close to spending four years of my life in. But that was almost ten years ago, and right now, Grahamstown is dry and windy, and not as full as I thought it would be. But apparently it picks up.

The town has been rushed by a barrage of little mime children — street kids who stand around with white paint on their faces, or in make-shift costumes, striking dramatic poses akin to still photographs from Oliver Twist. Rumour has it that in previous years these youngsters took a liking to gumboot dancing, but the locals and visitors — not so much. So someone thought that to preserve some sense of silence he would teach them how to mime. And they bought it. Plus, it’s probably a lot less energy for them to have to exert.

My first show was a local movie, White Wedding, which left me a giggling little girl with its cheesy yet delightful ending. It was sweet, pretty and hilarious and made some healthy fun of the sometimes ridiculous South African cultural psyche. I’m not terribly sure about that Monument as a screening venue, though. Or as a building, in general.

My evening gig was incredible. The United Nations of Grahamstown, featuring jazz musicians from across the world and the country, including Salim Washington — left me with a perpetual desire to shout “wowie zowie”. I must be honest, I know as much about jazz as I do about the intricate manufacturing process of Perspex, so I can’t really critique. But that made it so much more fun. The cockiness and bravado of what my friend termed these “unlikely rock stars” was apparent in every note, and I found myself and the audience lapping up their obvious intentions to create an hour and a half of pure musical glee.

According to Samuel Blaser, the Swiss trombonist in the group, I am the person they want to make music for, the one who is there to listen, instead of to think (I think it was a nice way of him saying it’s okay for me to be jazz-ignorant, but he was too sweet to say it). Outside, jazz musicians that even oblivious little me could recognise hung around the bar with the smell of gluwein spicing up the air, talking about big musical words and clever musical theories. And where the cheap food is.

The night ended at the Long Table, a buffet hangout set up specially for the festival, in an old church hall. Three long tables spread across the hall, at which people feasted on well over-priced but yummy food. The kind of place people find the love of their life in. It might be the candlelit atmosphere, but people definitely looked better in there than they did on the street.

I’m not sure yet if the festival is everything I hoped it would be, but at least the public transport is efficient.

  • M&G special report on the National Arts Festival